Monday, October 29, 2007

Indulging in Frivolities

Rabbi Pinchas Winston gleans a valuable lesson from our Mishna.

Israel camped in Shittim. The people acted immorally with the daughters of Moav, who lured the people to sacrifice to their gods (Bamidbar 25:1-2)

Talk about role reversal! One moment, Bilaam is up in the mountains overlooking the Jewish camp, trying to curse the Jewish people, but forced instead to praise them for their modesty; the next moment the people are acting immorally with the daughters of Moav! How does one fall from "perfection" so fast.

Perhaps we can glean insight into this catastrophe, which happens to plague many societies today and did in the past, from a Mishnah dealing with this issue.

The tractate is Kesuvos, which, obviously, deals with a man's marital obligations to his wife (and vice-versa) and family (and which, "coincidentally," contains a large section about the blessing of living in Eretz Yisroel toward the end). The Mishnah teaches: These are the things that a wife is obligated to perform for her husband And even if he brings into the house one hundred helpers, still, she should be compelled to work with wool, because doing nothing leads to promiscuous behavior (Mishnah, Kesuvos 59b)

We can assume, and prove from history, that this "principle" does not only apply to married women, but to everyone as well. And, we can also assume that the Mishnah's choice of "working with wool" is merely an example of an activity that keeps a person busy, and away from negative influences (not all trades create situations of modesty). And, perhaps we can make a connection from this Mishnah to the end of our parshah, and reveal the vulnerability of life in a premature Garden of Eden.

Not everyone is cut out for life in the Garden of Eden at this point in history. In fact, just about nobody is, save for a few very, VERY righteous individuals who have divested themselves of the pleasures of This World. As for the rest of us, the struggle does us a lot of good. It refines us, and defines us, and makes us grow and become great.

In fact, elsewhere the Talmud sums up our period of history with the following little saying:

Rav Yitzchak said: If a person tells you, "I tried, but did not succeed," don't believe him; "I did not try, but succeeded," don't believe him; "I tried and succeeded," believe him (Megillah 6b)

In the end, the Talmud concludes that this only applies to becoming "sharper" in Torah-learning (i.e., people can succeed in business with little effort and fail though they have made great effort). However, we know from the following:

According to the effort is the reward. (Pirkei Avos 5:22) -- that success IS the effort made.

To be human is to struggle, though our bodies fight against this with all their might (what a waste of energy!). The greatest promise that technological advancement holds out for most people is the promise of more leisure time, and, indeed, in many ways, it has delivered on that promise.

However, as we learn from the Mishnah, and from the Jews in the desert, more "leisure-time" is not necessarily a good thing. The Jews in the desert had every physical concern taken care of for them by Heaven; all they had to do was sit and learn Torah and keep away from trouble.

But what happens when trouble doesn't keep away from you?!! If you're a busy person with important goals, usually you have no time for it, and the fear of wasting a single moment for trivial matters frightens you into keeping on track. There are too many important matters to take care of to indulge in frivolities and pleasures that don't pay off in the long wrong.